Putting an end to domestic violence in a particular couple depends entirely on the courage of the victim and how well the victim tells their story. Perhaps the most troubling task for victims of domestic violence is to recount their horror stories to complete strangers, whether it be to police officers, social workers, court intake personnel, or medical personnel. Often, victims are under-informed about what acts are specifically classified as domestic violence according to the law. Some extremely dangerous situations are often not resolved in favor of the victim because the law prevents it. However, victims CAN get the protection they need; they just need to be better informed.
Before going further, an example (a completely fictional, yet likely common, situation) is necessary to understand the difficulties victims face in depicting acts of domestic violence that the law recognizes. Take the following story as an example of the type of situation where a victim would have difficulty getting a restraining order:
Kelly is a 50 year old married woman who has been married to her husband, Bill, for 5 years. She was previously married and divorced. She has no children; the only person she is close to is her husband. Bill is a habitual marijuana user and claims to have obsessive compulsive disorder. After they had been married two years, their relationship started to change from happy and healthy to abusive and harmful. Bill was constantly nagging Kelly to keep the house in perfect condition, claiming that she would cause Bill to have an anxiety attack if things were not in the perfect place. The nagging escalated into incessant criticism, and eventually outright verbal abuse. Bill was always sure to remind Kelly that she was “useless as a wife” and that he would rather “see her dead” than have to deal with her not keeping the house the way he wanted (Kelly took very good care of the house and she was a great wife). The violence soon got physical; Bill began to push and shove Kelly. Bill also would throw things at her while using extremely foul language. This continued for three years. Kelly began to fear for her life. Bill was a lot larger than her and had already isolated her from her friends. She had no one to turn to. A neighbor called the police one night because Bill was in the driveway yelling at Kelly “I am going to kill you if you try to tell anyone about this.” That was the point at which Kelly decided that she wanted to stop the violence by getting a restraining order against Bill. The immediate incident was enough for her to get a temporary restraining order, but when it came time to get a final restraining order, Kelly was denied.
It is easy to sit back and think, “Why would Kelly be denied a restraining order?” A direct threat on her life, along with a history of abuse, would be sufficient for her to get permanent legal protection from her husband. However, the burden was entirely on Kelly to tell the police about her history of abuse. It was humiliating to her to recount day after day of name-calling, pushing and shoving, and constant verbal abuse. However, Kelly did not know (and had no easy way of knowing) that the fact that Bill criticized her ability to keep the home in good condition was not domestic violence.
Oftentimes, a victim is so damaged that he or she will not be able to fully articulate the reasons protection is needed. Often, a victim will go into detail about the “reasons” or “justifications” (which are not justifications at all, since there is no justification for domestic violence) for the abuse rather than the abuse itself. Kelly would have told the police something like, “Bill yells at me if I move around objects in the house or if I don’t do what he tells me to.” While this may seem CRUCIAL to Kelly (and it is, since that is the beginning of most episodes of violence in her marriage), it does not qualify as an act of domestic violence under the law.
The things that Kelly must focus on in order to get permanent protection are the pushing, shoving, threats on her life, name-calling, and other verbal abuse. She must be able to give specific instances and prove to the court that there is a history of abuse in addition to the immediate incident causing the police to be called. While she may be able to do this, it is important to realize that some victims cannot bear to recount their stories. Those victims are often the ones in need of protection the most. Kelly did not get her restraining order because the court did not feel as if she was in danger. Kelly never gave specific examples to the police officers or court personnel. She did not know that she had to. When a victim is applying for a restraining order, they are often asked what happened and if anything has happened in the past. Often, the victim will say there is no history of domestic violence because of fear that the abuser will retaliate, or because the victim is simply too traumatized to do so. Kelly did not give her past history to police officers and no one told her she had to. She was being pushed through the court system with little to no help.
This is a situation all too common for victims of domestic violence. They are sent back to live with their abusers after the denial of a final restraining order. Currently, the best way to avoid the problem of victims not giving the right information to police is to have a legal advocate inform the victim about how to better their chances of getting the protection they want and need.
New York has a great program called Connect New York, offering information about legal options for victims of domestic violence. Their legal advocacy helpline can be the first step to a new life for a victim of domestic violence.